Volvo Says EVs Need Cleaner Grids, and Fast
- There’ll be no shortage of inspiring proclamations this week at the COP-26 global climate conference, and automakers including Volvo are no exception.
- Volvo’s calling for a worldwide move toward a renewable electric grid, which would mean electric vehicles would have significantly lower carbon emissions.
- The company has a point: A German study in the mid-2010s found a Mercedes B-class charged entirely with hydroelectric power had less than half the carbon emissions of the same EV charged on the prevailing grid mix.
As the COP-26 climate conference in Glasgow kicked off this week, Volvo released a new report on the life-cycle carbon emissions of its new 2022 Volvo C40 Recharge electric SUV. That report shows just how much EVs can cut carbon emissions when they’re charged entirely on renewable energy.
The Swedish luxury maker, which intends to become a fully electric carmaker by 2030, called for the world’s leaders and energy providers to move much faster toward a fully renewable electric grid globally. Only then, it suggested, can EVs cut the carbon emissions associated with personal transport to the levels required to stem the worst effects of climate change.
So-called Lifecycle Assessments (LCAs) of the carbon emissions of EVs over their lifetimes have long shown them to be significantly lower than those of comparable gasoline vehicles.
In October 2011, for example, a study of the Renault Fluence sedan by its maker found the Fluence ZE electric car had lower lifetime carbon emissions than both a diesel and a gasoline Fluence. That was true not just on the French electric grid—which is largely nuclear, and emits very little carbon—but also the U.K. grid, which 10 years ago still had substantial coal in the mix. (The U.K. now goes for weeks at a time without burning coal to generate electricity.)
In 2014, the Germany-based regulatory body TUV compared the life-cycle carbon emissions from a Mercedes-Benz B180 gasoline model versus the same car with a battery-electric powertrain. The carbon emissions of the electric B-class were 24 percent lower than those of the gasoline version when it was charged from a mix of power sources. TUV assumed both cars were driven 100,000 miles and recycled at the end of their lives.
Fast-forward to this year, and Volvo calculates its XC40 compact SUV has a life-cycle CO2 footprint of roughly 59 tons. If its new 2022 Volvo C40 Recharge electric SUV, built on the same underpinnings, is recharged using the average global energy mix—of which 60 percent is generated by burning fossil fuels—its life-cycle CO2 may be as high as 50 tons.
But what if that EV were “fueled” entirely using renewable electricity, with no fossil fuels involved? The numbers turned out to be radically lower. Charging a C40 Recharge over its lifetime with renewable energy almost halved its lifetime carbon footprint, cutting it to roughly 27 tons.
That’s what TUV’s Mercedes B-class analysis found seven years ago, too: If the EV were charged entirely with hydroelectric power, its lifetime carbon was 64 percent lower than that of the four-cylinder gasoline model—and less than half that of the same electric car charged on the prevailing grid mix.
So while EVs already reduce carbon emissions over their gasoline counterparts, they are capable of much more. The carbon footprints of today’s EVs will gradually lessen per mile as the grids they’re charged on gradually decarbonize—taking coal out of the mix, and replacing natural-gas generation with cheaper renewable sources.
But the faster those grids go renewable, the more carbon emissions EVs will eliminate. Volvo has ambitious plans to shift to an all-electric lineup in just 10 years, but as the carmaker said in an announcement timed to the start of COP-26, the company “will need the help of governments and the energy sector” to maximize those gains and minimize carbon emissions.
“We need governments and energy firms around the globe to step up their investments in clean energy capacity and related charging infrastructure,” said Håkan Samuelsson, Volvo’s chief executive, “so fully electric cars can truly fulfill their promise of cleaner mobility.”